Poland's third-largest city grew fabulously wealthy in the 19th century on the backs of its massive textile mills – and on the labour of the thousands of workers who toiled inside them. That wealth was shattered in waves: by the Great Depression of the 1930s, the tragic German occupation during WWII, and the inept communist regime that came after.
The northern stretch of Podlasie, known as Suwalszczyzna, is an area of outstanding natural beauty, with large swaths of pristine forest and, towards the north, rugged hills and deep valleys. Its defining feature, though, is water: it is a notable lakeland region, with around 200 lakes, and its rivers and canals are among the most paddled in the entire country.
Białystok (byah-wi-stok) is Podlasie's metropolis and a large, busy city for these parts. Attractions are limited, but its proximity to the region's national parks makes it a good base, and the historic mix of Polish and Belarusian cultures gives it a special atmosphere found in no other Polish city.
Białowieża National Park
Białowieża (byah-wo-vyeh-zhah) National Park (Białowieski Park Narodowy) was established in 1921 and is Poland's oldest national park. It covers an area of about 105 sq km and is part of a bigger forest known as the Białowieża Forest (Puszcza Białowieska), which straddles the border between Poland and Belarus. The national park is famous for two reasons.
Suwałki (soo-vahw-kee) is the largest town in the region, but lacks Augustów's charm and immediate proximity to lakes and rivers. There's also little in the way of tourism infrastructure, so if you view it as a gateway to the surrounding countryside, particularly the nearby Wigry National Park, rather than as a destination in itself, you're on the right track.
For much of the year Łowicz (wo-veech) is close to slipping into a permanent coma, but when Corpus Christi (Boże Ciało) comes around, it's the place to be. It can also boast a long and important connection to the Catholic Church – it was for over 600 years the seat of the archbishops of Gniezno, the supreme Church authority in Poland.
A sleepy town with a splendid castle and the longest market square in the country, Pułtusk (poow-toosk) is a fine place to stop for a few hours if your travels happen to lead you this way. Today, Pułtusk is just another dot on the Polish map, but the town's history is long and varied – its roots date back to the 10th century, making it one of Mazovia's oldest towns.
Like so many of the region's sleepy towns, Tykocin's (ti-ko-cheen) importance lies in its past. It started life as a stronghold of the Mazovian dukes, began to grow in the 15th century, and was further accelerated after the town became the property of King Zygmunt II August in 1543.
Biebrza National Park
The Biebrza National Park is Poland's largest and longest, stretching more than 100km from close to the Belarus border to the Narew River near Tykocin. Established in 1993, Biebrza (byehb-zhah) is a relatively new park but an important one, protecting the Biebrza Valley, Central Europe's largest area of natural bog.
Narew National Park
Narew National Park is just as interesting as Biebrza, but is not as geared towards visitors. Narew (nah-ref) protects an unusual stretch of the Narew River that's nicknamed the 'Polish Amazon', where the river splits into dozens of channels that spread out across a 2km-wide valley, forming a constellation of swampy islets in between.